Yesterday was the official celebration of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. If you didn’t know any better, you might think that January 19 (yesterday) was the day he was born. He wasn’t. He was born on January 15, 1929. We celebrate it on the 19th because, well, because that’s when we decided to start celebrating it. During the first President Bush’s term, the decision was made to celebrate his birthday on the third Monday of January. The official day because a more convenient day, and that’s why we celebrate it when we do.
The same thing happened to two other U.S. leaders, Presidents Washington and Lincoln. The two were celebrated on their birthdays in February but because they were so close together (a few weeks apart, separated by Valentine’s Day), the decision was made to celebrate Presidents’ Day instead, incorporating both holidays into one on a date that was significant for neither one. Welcome to the way we do things in America.
So, why do we focus on the days anyway? Let’s just put aside the fact that we don’t actually celebrate the specific days, but celebrate somewhere near those days. The question still remains. Why do we acknowledge them in the first place?
You could say that it has something to do with paying respect to our elders, or even our founders. But if that was so, why aren’t we celebrating Jefferson, Adams, Monroe, Henry Ford, Rockefeller and/or Steve Jobs/Bill Gates? I mean, there is no shortage of people who probably deserve some mention, yet we focus only on very specific people and, if lucky, add someone to that list after decades of struggle over whether or not we should be more inclusive.
Perhaps an answer to this question may require us to step away from U.S. recognitions and move towards some of the memorials that happen in other countries and civilizations. In Southeast Asia, quite often certain events in history are memorialized and whenever those dates come around each year, all sorts of future events occur that can sometimes be disruptive to the people living in our time. An example is a peoples’ movement that occurred in South Korea, where protesters were killed on a particular date during an uprising in the 1960s. Whenever that year came around, common citizens would rise up and riot again, almost as if remembrance was a signal to regurgitate protest movements all over again. And then a year later, if the police struck hard enough the year before, those subsequent protests would then be added to he common memory of something to memorialize each year going forward. Kind of cool if you’re a protesting civilian, but must have been hell on the people trying to run a stable government.
So why do we memorialize in the first place? What purpose does it serve? Does remembering bring happiness? If you look at something like the Vietnam Memorials that exist in numerous states and at the national level, happiness is generally not the feeling you get from such memorials. Sadness and regret is often the reaction. But I would say that for the Vietnam experience, perhaps sadness and regret might not be a bad thing because at least then it causes people to think twice before making the same type of mistake again. That would be great if that’s what actually happens. But unfortunately, that’s not what happens. As a matter of fact, I believe that the people who should be focusing on the events are the ones who tend to ignore them most, basically putting on blinders and going forward and doing the same things next time around. It’s like the protest spheres they set up at political campaigns. The people who protested were hoarded into locations that were designed to be out of sight and ear of the people attending the functions, so that the ones listening to the politicians were oblivious to the protests of people who really wanted the people making decisions to be aware of. For a country that modeled itself on free speech, we created a dynamic that did everything possible to avoid any kind of adverse conversation, meaning that people who made decisions never had to listen to anyone who might actually have a problem with those decisions.
Which brings me back to the idea of certain days celebrating certain things, especially in a way that avoids any conversation about those things. Columbus Day is an example of one of those days that could have led to a lot of great conversations about some of the atrocities carried out in our name by our previous generations. But once the conversation started becoming difficult, it stopped being a national holiday, and now no one talks about those instances because there’s no official day that causes us to have to remember what we did. Sure, a few press junkets attempt to broach the subject, but more often than not, the conversation is flat, and we move onto the next holiday celebration quickly so we don’t have to deal with the consequences of the things we might have done. Instead, we’ll go to some foreign soil one day in the future (or maybe just a few years ago), attempt some modern day version of Manifest Destiny, and then claim that we shouldn’t be accountable for our bad actions because there was nothing in our past that should have taught us otherwise.
In other words, my fear is that our national remembrances are no longer being used for the purposes they should have been utilized, and instead we’re coaxing such days with ways to bring profit to our manufacturing and sales sectors. Instead of looking at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday as a time to reflect on how far the civil rights movement went and how much further it needs to go, some company will try to sell us fried chicken, or on President’s Day: beds, or whatever fancies us, and in the end we’re going to learn very little about the mistakes we’ve made and how we can avoid making them in the future.
One day, after I’m famous and have cured the ills of our society, I hope they celebrate my birthday. Unfortunately, it occurred on Lincoln’s birthday, so they’ll probably never celebrate mine. And knowing my luck, I’ll end up dying on the same day as Kurt Cobane or some other known figure, and that day will forever be linked to that individual as well. If I’m truly lucky, people will remember me and some manufacturer will hopefully sell something people can use on that day, like breath mints or condoms. After all, that’s what helps one’s legacy remain within the hearts of people for generations to come.